Symbolic violence in schools

Image: Ignacio Palés


An environment that is extremely repressive of progressive ideas, knowledge and values

School is not a neutral environment, where ideas and knowledge can circulate freely. In fact, it is an extremely repressive environment for progressive ideas, knowledge and values. The school is eminently a political space of symbolic violence. However, this fact is not perceived by most teachers, since they consume the homogenized cultural products of the cultural industry. In doing so, they adhere to the values ​​and ideology of the ruling class.

As Marilena Chauí (2016, p. 276) observed, “the majority of elementary and secondary school teachers belong to the lower strata of the urban middle class and, therefore, adhere to the ideas of this class, in which education is the transmission of information and training to obtain the diploma, so that pedagogical practice aims to reinforce and not criticize the dominant ideology, which is taken as the truth of things”.

French thinkers, Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron (2014), in the 1950s, were the first to realize that the objective of school is not to form autonomous subjects, but to manufacture a set of social roles and values, whose function is the constitution of subjects adapted to the social, economic and political order of a social group or class. For them, the school imposes values, beliefs, precepts, ways of being and thinking through symbolic domination: “Every pedagogical action is objectively a symbolic violence as an imposition, by an arbitrary power, of a cultural arbitrariness” (BOURDIEU; PASSERON, 2015, p. 27).

Pedagogical action, therefore, imposes meanings as if they were legitimate, disguising power relations and class interests, which are behind this dominant cultural arbitrariness: “The selection of meanings that objectively defines the culture of a group or a class as a symbolic system is arbitrary insofar as the structure and functions of this culture cannot be deduced from any universal principle, physical, biological or spiritual, and are not united by any kind of internal relationship to the 'nature of things' or to a 'human nature'". (BOURDIEU; PASSERON, 2015, p. 29).

For the two sociologists, there is no neutral education. The school would be a space for socialization that contributes to the formation of individuals' identities, through symbolic domination. In other words, the school imposes a cultural arbitrary for the formation of a “habitus” cultural. They understand why habitus a set of values, beliefs, meanings and symbols of the culture of a group or social class, which are assimilated as a system of guidance and dispositions for action. In this sense, the school reproduces power relations, social distinctions and class differences.

To use an expression by Herbert Marcuse (1973), the school reproduces “one-dimensional thinking”, as it develops a unique universe of ideas and behaviors, where other forms of thought and knowledge are ignored. With this, the school becomes the most important moral matrix of societies, which imposes through symbolic violence a system of thought and values ​​that must be internalized.

It is through pedagogical policies that content and knowledge are shaped according to class interests. The greatest example of this is epistemological racism, which exists today in educational establishments. In pedagogical practices, the depreciation of Afro-Amerindian, Asian, African knowledge and popular culture is notorious. The learning process in traditional public education has a political intention.

It is the ruling class that decides what should be taught, it is it that decides what is estimable or insignificant, what should be privileged or what should be ignored. Therefore, there is no justification for studying classical music instead of hip hop; the history of Europe rather than the history of Africa; white man's literature to the detriment of black or Asian man's literature; classical painting instead of graffiti or tagging in large urban centers.

In traditional education, the knowledge transmitted, the teaching methods, the ways of evaluating, everything would be organized to benefit the perpetuation of class interests. Because of this, symbolic domination is disguised. The effectiveness of the dominant cultural arbitrariness depends on the lack of knowledge of the objective truth of the pedagogical action, which is considered natural and legitimate.

Due to the values ​​and ideologies disseminated by the dominant classes, teachers constantly suffer harassment from managers and the school community. It is common for teachers to be called upon by management or supervision for teaching certain content. If you debate child sexuality, based on Freud's ideas, then you run a serious risk that a student's father will appear in your classes or that a director will summon you to give explanations.

If you want to reflect on religious issues and say that “God is dead”, as Nietzsche stated, you run a serious risk that a student's mother will make a formal complaint to the principal. If you debate the Communist Manifesto of Marx, also runs a serious risk of being called communist and being accused of disseminating political ideas, with the argument that the school has no party. If you discuss gender and homosexuality, you may be accused of disseminating gender ideology, as if gender were a natural and religious category, and not a social and historical construction.

Symbolic violence is imposed in a more transparent and explicit way in far-right governments. The involvement of military and religious people in educational issues is very common. In a time of fascism and religious intolerance, the participation of evangelical churches in public schools became common, through lectures, courses, dynamics and even religious education classes.

Today, in governments linked to far-right agendas, these actions have intensified. There are many complaints from parents and students themselves who follow other religious aspects. However, the school community, being expressly Christian, is not bothered, and even sees it as something good for the moral and civic training of students. The fact is that religion at school is the exercise of symbolic violence, first because they disrespect other religions; secondly because it is a regression of man to an anthropologically previous stage of the human species. When religion stands against scientific objectivity, it threatens education.

What is paradoxical about education is that, despite being conservative, it can reveal the structures and mechanisms of domination, it can be a vehicle for liberation. A critical education is possible, which can reflect on itself. As Martins (2002) assessed, knowledge of practice constitutes one of the conditions for the production of a relative practice of freedom. This does not rest on individualistic or collective voluntarism, much less on scientific fatalism, but on knowledge of the foundations of the production of practice, the starting point for the construction of a rational utopia.

The awareness of the reproductive tendency of the education system by its agents, the recognition of the illegitimacy of the process, can contribute to a change of perspective, that is, the possibility of moving from reproduction to social emancipation (ALMEIDA, 2005). As Paulo Freire (1987, p. 17) states, education can only become a “practice of freedom”, when the pedagogical process makes “oppression and its causes an object of reflection by the oppressed, resulting in their necessary engagement in the fight for their liberation.”

 In his “Notes to clarify the notion of habitus”, Loïc Wacquant (2007) explains to us that, despite the habitus Being durable, it is not static or eternal, dispositions are socially assembled and can be eroded, contradicted or even dismantled by exposure to new external forces. This is the case of immigrants who, after spending many years exposed to the culture of a foreign country, change their ways of thinking and behavior.

This fact allows us to think about education from a new perspective. Bourdieu's theory itself gives us room to think about the idea of ​​the subject's autonomy. Through school, it is possible to deconstruct the habitus ruling class and develop a new habitus, which recovers the critical autonomy of the subjects. It is possible to develop, through lasting pedagogical work, new dispositions for action, which become antagonistic to the dominant cultural arbitrariness.

The pedagogical process can build new schemes of perception, appreciation and representation, new values ​​and principles of human conduct. From political clarification, as a critical reflection on reality, it is possible to reveal the mechanisms of domination, it is possible to make the learning process an instrument of liberation.

*Michel Aires de Souza Dias He holds a PhD in Education from the University of São Paulo (USP).


ALMEIDA, L. Pierre Bourdieu: Social transformation in the context of The Reproduction.

Inter-Ação: UFG Education Faculty Magazine, 30(1), 139-155, Jan./Jun. 2005.

BOURDIEU, Pierre; PASSERON, JC. Reproduction: Elements for a theory of the education system. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Vozes, 2014.

CHAUI, Marilena. Marilena Chaui's paths: philosophy, politics and education. Interview given to Homero Silveira Santiago, Paulo Henrique Fernandes Silveira. Education and Research Magazine, vol. 42, no. 1, p. 259-277, Jan/Mar 2016.

FREIRE, p. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Rio de Janeiro: Peace and Land, 1987.

MARCUSE, H. The Ideology of Industrial Society. Rio de Janeiro, Zahar, 1973.

MARTINS, C. (2002) Notes on the notion of practice in Pierre Bourdieu. New CEBRAP Studies, no. 62, p. 163-181, March 2002.


WACQUANT, L. Notes to clarify the notion of habitus. Education and Language, nº 16, p. 63-71, Jul-Dec 2007.

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